Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Use it or lose it, Part II

I love it when comments or questions spark ideas for new posts.
This comment from Kenney was in response to the post below:

In grad school there was a beautiful young woman who was looking through slides in the slide library. She was a teaching assistant for studio, I was one for art history. I started my rap, "That's pretty cool that you're using art historical examples for your drawing class."

She replied, "Yeah, but I don't like to show them too much stuff too often. If they know to much about the past, I feel like that other painters imagery will influence them too much and they'll repeat it."

I decided not to ask her out.
Well I agree with both of them, and think there was a missed opportunity for fruitful conversation over coffee, if not more.

My point in the last post was that it’s important that museums, and the artists who show in them, have a deep understanding of their place in the art history continuum.  When teaching studio art, however, the issue becomes much more complex, because students are so easily influenced. They want to make art that “looks like” art, and are often encouraged in this by their instructors, who have their own expectations about what art should look like.

Most of the art I see falls flat because it lacks inspired idiosyncrasy—something artists develop not by looking at other art, but by learning to trust their singular intuition.

In his lecture at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) last week, Rob Storr talked about a piece by Robert Ryman, shown at MoMA, which incorporated four small strips of masking tape. The museum installers were fastidious in measuring and matching the strips with those in the photographs, but it was flat, had no energy. Then Ryman came into the gallery and Storr watched fascinated as the artist placed the strips himself, seemingly in the same places, and the piece came alive—became a Ryman.

I had a big lesson in the value, or lack of it, of exposure to outside influences during a period when I was simultaneously teaching undergraduates at Bennington College in isolated Vermont, and graduate students at the School of Visual Arts, with its proximity to the galleries. My younger, unexposed Bennington students produced more original work because they were working primarily from their own resources—unlike the SVA students who were into cloning Chelsea, they hadn’t (yet) acquired superficial assumptions about what art should look like (and here I must give credit here to those few SVA students who were able to overcome their environment).  

Like Ryman, I didn’t study painting, and am glad for it. Music was my first love, my most evident natural talent, and in a perfect world I’d be Radiohead or Sigur Rós.  However after 20 years of rigorous classical piano training, I no longer had a clue who I was musically, and eventually gave up trying. While it’s easy to point out musicians who have evolved their classical training into something more contemporary (like, perhaps, Sigur Rós), history doesn’t count those like me who tried and failed.

As a teacher, I’m cautious about how and when I introduce the work of others, because I’m aware that to be faced with work of accomplishment when you do not yet have skills can be extremely intimidating.

At Bennington I had the luxury of creating my own beginning painting class the way I’d always wanted to teach it, and enjoying the results. [I was also abetted by the most excellent TA, Catherine Hamilton who, with her thorough RISD training in techniques, proved to be the perfect resource.]

I started with abstraction because an understanding of abstraction is important to every successful painting, regardless of content, and often with figurative work it’s easy to get so wrapped up in representing the image that other necessary painting decisions go by the wayside.

So the first assignment was to paint, with acrylics, 3 to 5 squares or rectangles using only primary colors on a 2’ x 2’ canvas stretched on a professional support (none of those crappy pre-stretched canvases for my students—you have to be a really great painter to make those things look good, and then, why bother?). My secret agenda here was that I wanted the students to have a positive first painting experience, build confidence for what would come later, and that formula is hard to screw up.

First painting by unidentified Bennington student, acrylic on canvas, 2' x 2', circa 1998.

The second assignment was to do the same, now adding curves and mixing primary colors to make secondaries, as desired.

The following assignments were to paint a landscape, then a portrait, then a still life without any preparation—somewhat like the way my grandfather was taught to swim by being thrown off the end of a dock—always on the same 2’ x 2’ format, as it’s important to accustom oneself to a particular scale, and I had laid in a supply of inexpensive strainers from Twin Brooks Stretchers.

Each assignment was followed by a group critique that emphasized the differences in approach, and only then did I introduce examples of how other artists had treated similar subject matter.  My aim as a teacher has always been to tread as lightly as possible, to be a resource and facilitator in realizing the students' intentions, and to use examples from art history only where it would support this objective.

On the other hand, I have a friend, painter Richard Britell, who tells the story of a class he was teaching where he set up a still life with the instruction to “paint it like Vermeer.”  That nudge was all one student needed. After that class, Richard said, “She no longer needed me”—and indeed, Janet Rickus has been successfully painting in the manner of an updated Vermeer ever since.

Diff’rent strokes, as they say.

Janet Rickus, Turnips on Table, oil on panel, 14" x 27", 1996

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Use it or lose it

Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it -- Adage

After a much-needed blog break, the urge to vent finally overcame me after a recent visit to MoMA, where I went looking for inspiration (isn’t that the only reason artists visit museums?) and ended up feeling cranky and alienated. Has it finally happened, I wondered, that I’ve turned into the old fogey who doesn’t get the new art? Well I may definitely be an old fogey, but if I’m cranky it’s not because the art is so new, but because it’s so old. What really got me was the “environmental and participatory sound installation” in the MoMA atrium, “a monumental, voluminous construction made of soft, white, translucent material that hangs from ceiling to floor and takes the shape of an elliptical labyrinth.” I immediately thought of the piece by Àngels Ribé that I saw in Barcelona this summer (cited in an earlier post), a monumental, voluminous construction made of transparent PVC that hung from ceiling to floor and took the shape of an elliptical labyrinth—which Ribé first made 42 years ago when the MoMA artist, a Brazilian named Carlito Carvalhosa, was eight years old.

But wait…the MoMA piece has a “sound” aspect: “a system of microphones hangs from various heights and records the day’s ambient noise, which is played back the following day through several speakers” something that might seem interesting when described in wall text or a press release, but in real life makes zero impact. The first time I experienced anything like that was at Chicago’s N.A.M.E. Gallery circa 1973 when a local artist recorded the sound occurring in one part of the gallery and played it back in another. I didn’t know about Bruce Nauman at the time, but I’m guessing he was beginning to work with sound then too—when Carvalhosa would have been twelve.

The global art world is flooded with hothouse conceptual art much like this, which Jerry Saltz recently coined the “International School of Silly Art.” Born in institutions, and exhibited in institutions, mechanical and denatured, it has the look but not the guts of its predecessors. Neither building on a tradition nor reacting to one, it exists in a vacuum—a rehashing of history without being part of it.

On the other hand, as I’ve pointed out before, the music of the same generation is alive and well and living in this century. Young musicians have absorbed the music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, synthesized it and made it their own. Also to make music you can’t just say you’re a musician but must learn an actual skill, and I fervently believe that the honing of a skill—a practice (a word Peter Schjeldahl hates when applied to visual art, but I like because it implies necessary repetition)—slows down the creative process and allows the time and space for idiosyncrasy to emerge.

This is why Marina Abramović’The Artist is Present was completely effective, where the recreations of the older pieces that accompanied it were not. Everything Abramović did the past, all her experience—her “practice”—added up to a personal presence that filled the room, something a stand-in who lacked the artist’s peculiar self-training could never approximate, especially when the thrill and risk of doing it for the first time was gone. (It’s curious that Abramović, whose work involves self-awareness, didn’t get this distinction).

But, hmm, maybe the über-liberals of the art world are just following a societal trend that includes the Republicans, who rewrite history every day without batting an eye. If we can do something lame and make everyone believe it’s new, important and exciting, why work harder?

I’m not arguing for new or old, but the development of ideas and forms—any idea, any form—that takes art beyond the mundane, is something I think about the next day and am eager to revisit. Saltz again, in a 2008 interview, challenged artists to make something that seems “to put off more energy than might have gone into making it. A good Pollock,” he continued, “is like the burning bush: It burns but doesn’t burn out. You don’t use it up.”

Up until October 8th at Meulensteen in Chelsea  (formerly Max Protetch) are the small acrylic paintings on metal of Ann Pibal who, while just five years Carvalhosa’s senior, has clearly thoroughly studied and digested the history of a nearly century-old form—geometric abstraction—to create work that's  fresh and of its timewhich is just what we want: art that doesn’t replicate history, but makes it.

Satisfaction is rare, but it does happen.

Ann Pibal, MNGO, 2010, acrylic on aluminum, 12 1/2 x 17 3/4", courtesy of the artist and Meulensteen, NY.

Ann Pibal, SPTR, 2010, acrylic on aluminum, 11 1/4 x 15 3/4", courtesy of the artist and Meulensteen, NY.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


The rain seems to have washed away all my brain cells, as well as any interest in art whatsoever,  resulting in an inadvertent hiatus from my blog. I absolutely refuse to write drivel just to keep things going. However, given that the rat race art season begins this week--openings galore!--inspiration will surely come my way. Meanwhile French office workers need neither galleries or an art season, but have generated a lively competition with art made from Post-It Notes. More here from the Guardian: